As I watched the opening night performance of “The Book of Liz” at The Ringwald Theatre, my mind kept flashing back to one of my all-time favorite TV series, “The Carol Burnett Show.” But instead of Carol, Harvey, Vicki and Tim, I was mesmerized by the comedic skills and quick wit of Jaime, Joe B., Melissa and Joe P. – that is Moyer, Bailey, Beckwith and Plambeck.
The comparisons – to me, at least – are obvious.
Like their TV counterparts, the Ferndale Four are top-notch performers. Comedy is their forte, and each is adept at creating a wide array of characters – a skill much in demand in “The Book of Liz.” They are also fast on their feet, so when fake mustaches won’t stick to an upper lip or a false beard won’t cooperate, they’re quickly tossed aside – generally with a funny quip – and the action continues without missing a beat. (Except to wait for the laughter to die down, of course.)
And just like the stars of the once-popular TV variety show, Jaime, Joe B., Melissa and Joe P. seem to love working together and challenging one another to do their best. Tim Conway’s ability to crack up Harvey and Carol in the middle of a sketch is legendary, and Jaime – who I suspect tossed Joe B. a few curves during the performance – has that same effect on her co-stars.
And the audience, too.
Even the script has that “Carol Burnett” feel to it – if Burnett and company were doing the show today on HBO. The wackiness is courtesy of siblings David and Amy Sedaris, who tell the parable of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (Moyer) and her Amish-like religious community, the Squeamish. Since an early age, the very devout Donderstock has supported the parish through the nationwide sale of her flavorful cheese balls. But change is in the wind when community leader Brother Tollhouse (Bailey) orders Donderstock to give her secret recipes to the recently arrived (and younger) Brother Brightbee (Plambeck), and then report to her new assignment in the chives garden.
Feeling under-appreciated, Donderstock runs away and enters the modern world for the very first time. Luckily, she finds work in a Puritan-themed restaurant, Plymouth Crock, where her old-fashioned ways fit in perfectly with the 12-stepping alcoholics who work there and frequent it. But without her unique touch, life in Clusterhaven falls on hard times.
Beneath the laughs, “The Book of Liz” explores the culture clash between ancient religious beliefs and a fast-changing modern society. (“What’s a breakfast burrito,” Donderstock, in the outside world, begs anyone and everyone to explain.)
To do that, the playwrights have populated their parable with gay restaurateurs, Ukrainian immigrants who speak with British accents, various 12-steppers, a Squeamish busy-body and Mr. Peanut – all of whom provide the four actors with multiple opportunities to strut their stuff.
Also impressive is Michelle Becker and Joe Becker’s colorful set. Designed (and illustrated) like a children’s book, each turn of the giant page takes the audience to the next scene. And a few surprising flourishes earn laughs all of their own!
‘The Book of Liz’
Who Wants Cake Theatre, The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday, Saturday and Monday through Aug. 3. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com